As of publishing this article it has been 10 years since Mr. Rogers’ death and about 50 years since his debut as television host on the influential Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Other than fond memories of Fred Rogers and his TV lessons, there are many other interesting parts of his life which he was not well known for.
Rogers was multi-talented
As Rogers mentions in the video below, he wore many hats (link is external) to produce Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood partly due to lack of budget and partly because it’s what he enjoyed doing as part of his ministry.
He began his college career at Ivy League Dartmouth College and transferred to Rollins College to finish his BA in Music Composition. He also received over 40 honorary degrees during his life.
He composed over 200 songs for the show, wrote all the scripts which he then played out with only a couple edits per minute of film to ensure his message wasn’t “fragmented,” and he controlled the puppets as well.
Saved public television in 6 minutes
President Richard Nixon wanted to cut the funding for public television in half. Rogers explained his TV show to a senator who had never seen or heard of it before, recited one of the songs, and left the senator with goosebumps who then granted the full budget. Video below:
He’s a big part of the reason you are allowed to have a record button
At a time when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was carried by more TV stations than any other show and had approximately 3,000,000 families watching daily Mr. Rogers testified in a 1979 Sony vs. Universal Studios court case arguing that VCR recording devices should be allowed because they would allow families to control what programming they saw and when.
His testimony has been used in other copyright cases as well as an argument for the right to record shows:
“Some public stations, as well as commercial stations, program the Neighborhood at hours when some children cannot use it … I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the Neighborhood off-the-air, and I’m speaking for the Neighborhood because that’s what I produce, that they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life.
Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions.’
Maybe I’m going on too long, but I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.”
Started his TV show because he didn’t like TV
Upon returning home after graduating college in 1951, Rogers watched television for his first time when he turned on the new one his parents had purchased.
What he saw were “people throwing pies at one another” and he decided then to pursue a career in television in order to make it better.
Rogers never watched TV during his normal daily routine, but he did begin and continue his television career with the goal of increasing the quality of programming people have available.
Mr. Rogers wasn’t a character, he actually cared about and loved people
Mr. Rogers wasn’t a character, he was a real man and he once said, “I am not a character on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I don’t think of time away from the studio as my ‘real’ life. The studio is my real life; the person on camera is the real me,” and this is confirmed by other’s accounts and his actions.
When Mr. Rogers met someone, he would make it a point to really get to know them personally and often kept in touch with them periodically for the rest of his life.
In one such instance he was attending an event that a television executive was hosting. Rogers’ limo driver was to wait outside for a couple hours until the event concluded, but he wouldn’t allow it. Rogers invited the driver in to the event and sat up front on the way home.
While riding home Rogers’ learned they would be passing the limo driver’s house and insisted they stop to meet the driver’s family. Rogers played piano and hung out with the family for much of the night and continued to keep in touch with the driver for years to come and the driver said it was one of his best nights.
Rogers was also a Presbyterian minister who always preached tolerance and love above all. He was known to attract some criticism by openly accepting groups of people such as gays and telling them God loves them just the way they are. He carried himself nearly exactly the same on and off screen and his wife Joanne said he viewed it all as part of his ministry.
Koko the gorilla is a big fan of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood
While filming an episode on sign language Mr. Rogers traveled to record some video with Koko, the famous Stanford educated gorilla that understands about 1,000 signs in American Sign Language and understand about 2,000 spoken English words.
Koko immediately recognized Mr. Rogers as she had seen many episodes of his show. Koko signed, “Koko love” and removed Mr. Rogers’ shoes and sweater like she had seen him do on the TV show many times.
Made everyone cry at the Emmy Awards without saying anything
When Rogers proposed a moment of silence while accepting his Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award there was a bit of a chuckle from the crowd, but in the end there was tears.
Weighed exactly 143 pounds for decades
Every day for the last 30 years of his life Mr. Rogers weighed in at exactly 143 pounds. He had a very strict and disciplined routine just like how he started and ended each episode of his TV show.
Every day he would go through the same several hour process of waking up at 5am, praying, responding to fan letters, calling friends and family, swimming, eating the same foods (never any fleshy meat), watching zero TV, and going to bed early at the same time. Rogers is quoted on the subject of his weight:
“The number 143 means ‘I love you.’ It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you.’ One hundred and forty-three. ‘I love you.’ Isn’t that wonderful?”
Rogers’ mom knit those sweaters
Every sweater Rogers wore on the show over the years was hand-knit by his mom, Nancy.
In December of 2002 and at the age of 74 Rogers was diagnosed with stomach cancer and underwent an unsuccessful surgery in January. Ultimately he decided to return home for his final days.
On February 27, 2003 Mr. Fred McFeely Rogers died from stomach cancer with his wife of 50 years, Joanne, at his side.
The legacy lives on. The Fred Rogers Company continues Mr. Rogers’ mission of reaching children and families with positive programming through cartoons, games, literature, social services, curriculum, and parenting resources. As of writing this article, Rogers’ wife Joanne is still involved in The Fred Rogers Company.
Mister Rogers remixed by John D. Boswell for PBS as a sort of tribute. I wasn’t sure how I felt about auto-tuning Mr. Rogers at first, but it’s a pretty good little tribute to his message and mission.
Featured Image: The Atlantic